McCain’s BFF

Lindsey Graham may be more valuable as McCain’s running buddy than as his running mate.

Sen. Lindsey Graham

John McCain and South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham have logged so many miles together, in nearly a decade of buddy-movie-style campaign road trips, that the conservative blogs call Graham “McCain’s Mini Me.” (And “Grahamnesty,” in a swipe at McCain’s immigration plan, and—because seventh grade is forever—”Senator Dramatic Chipmunk.”) Their policy differences are imperceptible, and when they switch positions, they tend to do that in tandem also, as when they simultaneously dropped their opposition to offshore drilling. On a personal level, they share a sense of humor based on insult—think George W. Bush, only funny—an interest in military history, and a history in the military.

Yet in other ways, Graham is not only an unexpected BFF for McCain but his opposite, as fluent in the emotional realm as the presidential candidate is flummoxed. Graham has a facility with language and a dexterity in expressing feelings that the older man simply lacks. Which is why, as McCain’s Mouth and running buddy, Graham is as important to the presumptive nominee as any official running mate.

Their bond dates to the 2000 presidential campaign, when Graham chose McCain over Bush—one asked for his support, the other didn’t—then jumped on the bus with him and basically never got off. After McCain lost the nomination, he and Graham kept right on campaigning for Republican congressional candidates all over the country. During one of those trips, which I went along on, Graham was leafing through the Victoria’s Secret catalog he’d brought with him, and McCain was mocking him for leafing through the Victoria’s Secret catalog he’d brought with him. After Graham stopped looking at girls in push-up bras, he raised the topic of abortion with me, out of nowhere, and started an incredibly serious philosophical discussion about ensoulment and moral gray areas—easily the most earnest and gut-level conversation I’ve ever had with an elected official. It went on for a while and got so deep I had kind of forgotten McCain was sitting across from us until the plane started to land, at which point I looked over and saw that he was mortified by all the heavy talk and, quite possibly, by the entire topic: “Profiles in courage here, looking out the window,” he said, acknowledging his discomfort.

Graham consistently expresses McCain’s sentiments better than McCain himself can. If you want a lousy interview with McCain, ask about his wife—not for any lack of feeling, I suspect, but for lack of words about feelings. His old-school way of expressing affection? If he likes you, and you work for him, you’re an “incompetent jerk”; if he likes you, and you’re a bunch of reporters writing down his bons mots, it’s “What do you want, you little jerks?”; and if you’re a kid who’s just asked about his age, and he wants to show that sure, fine, he likes you anyway, it’s “Thanks for the question, you little jerk. You’re drafted.

This is not to say he isn’t emotional; on the contrary, as one former Clinton administration official recently told the Washington Post: In “the many, many years that I’ve been in Washington, John McCain is far and away the most emotional politician I have ever met. … People don’t understand that, so they keep talking about his temperament, his temper. He reacts emotionally, therefore unpredictably.” But while McCain’s outpourings of feeling sometimes take him places he really shouldn’t go, Graham’s tend to be better targeted—and often unleashed on McCain’s behalf, in an emotional vocabulary McCain doesn’t have. (Here he is on Meet the Press, throwing his hands in the air and his heart into the debate over the troop surge in Iraq—yet keeping calm in comparison with his jousting partner, Jim Webb.)

Maybe some of his E.Q. comes from growing up in a bar; Graham’s folks had a little neighborhood beer joint in Central, S.C., and the family lived in the back. “I’ve heard every story and then some,” he once said. “And I’ve heard ‘Satin Sheets to Lie On and Satin Pillows to Cry On’ a thousand times. … [I]t was a great place to learn about life. I had wives call up wanting to know if their husband’s there and I’m answering the phone at 9 years of age. And I’d say, ‘Well, he said he isn’t here.’ So I learned the hard way about a little bit of diplomacy.”

Both of his parents died when he was in college, and he eventually adopted his teenage sister—an experience of nurturing that few college boys would be up for. After law school, also at the University of South Carolina, he served in Germany in the Air Force (and still serves in the Air Force Reserves). On his return to South Carolina, he hung out his shingle and, as a trial lawyer, made a pretty good living off his ability to wield emotion. He financed his first political run with some of his winnings from a multimillion-dollar award in a medical malpractice case. He won that race, went to the state legislature in 1992, came to Congress in the Gingrich Revolution of 1994, and rose to national prominence just a few years later, when he served as a House manager of the impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton.

Sometimes Graham makes his points with charm, other times with venom. On Fox News Sunday recently, expertly playing to the audience’s emotions—which, as we should know by now, is how elections are won—he viscerally appealed to Hillary voters by suggesting that Obama thinks of them as a bunch of racists: “We’re not going to run a campaign like he did in the primary, [that] every time somebody brings up a challenge to who you are and what you believe, ‘You’re a racist.’ That’s not going to happen in this campaign.”

Of course, Obama himself has never said such a thing—and had he muttered it under his breath in the third grade, we surely would have heard about it by now. Graham, on the other hand, has made blanket accusations of racism; last year, he thundered to a Hispanic audience, “We’re gonna tell the bigots to shut up”—a remark that caused quite a ruckus among the conservative opponents of immigration-reform legislation he was referring to.

Though many Senate colleagues see the McCain-Graham relationship as a father-son connection, no 52-year-old son would so willingly play sidekick. Graham was literally knocked to the ground by a bunch of photographers trying to get to McCain on their visit to Israel in April. “I almost dislocated my knee, and John is screaming, ‘Get up! Get up!’ ” he told Politico. “Apparently, my fate in life is to be instructed.” Yet he doesn’t seem to mind, and is more deferential than any official running mate I can remember: “If I make his day better by being someone he can talk to, confide in, have a good laugh with, I am honored to play that role. I enjoy his company.”

And vice versa, obviously. But what else does Graham get for his loyalty and service? Publicity, for one thing: He’s in every shot—like this one and this one (and this, too; that’s him, holding the Dalai Lama’s other hand). Graham is also up for re-election this year and has not been subtle about bragging that his closeness with McCain will benefit South Carolina if his friend wins the election. “If he gets to be president, South Carolina’s interests will have a receptive audience due to our relationship,” Graham told the AP.

When it comes to the McCain veepstakes, then, wouldn’t Graham seem to be an obvious front-runner? With his military background, foreign-policy cred, regional appeal, and efficacy as a surrogate, you’d think so. But as the New York Times so delicately phrased it: “Mr. Graham is a single man—is that still a challenge to be on a national ticket?”

A: Yes, it is, even if that wasn’t really Graham in his underwear in GQ two years ago; the image was Photoshopped, and in the accompanying article, Graham shrugged and said, essentially, Nah, I’m not gay, just a lonely dude workaholic with no personal life, other than couch surfing chez McCain or with a female aide and her husband, whom he’s known since high school. His lack of a wife briefly seemed to be at issue during his 2002 Senate race, when the state Democratic chairman, Dick Harpootlian, called him “a little too light in the loafers to fill Strom Thurmond’s shoes.” (Later, Harpootlian pleaded light in the head, saying he didn’t know that was an anti-gay slur.)

Graham says he has no interest in the vice-presidential nomination, anyway—or in being attorney general—or anything at all other than to stay exactly where he is and help McCain from the Senate. But if McCain is elected, he’ll wield enormous power there as First Friend.